BY RABBI THOMAS P. LIEBSCHUTZ
Most of us are familiar with the expression, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh – all Jews are united (or connected) to each other.” This saying powerfully grips the imagination of how Jews think, feel and act towards each other. Traditionally we have always regarded each other as family. We are one people. As such we have an obligation to support and help each other.
These concepts were stimulated, strengthened and enriched by teachings found in our weekly Torah portion, B’Har, from Leviticus 25 and our Haftorah from the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 32. Leviticus 25, speaking of conditions 2500 years ago and more in the land of Israel, tells of Jews who suffered the misfortune of severe economic hardship. Tragically they were sometimes forced to sell their land, if not themselves, to other Jewish kinsmen. Mercifully they had recourse to then existing Torah law enumerated in this chapter to extricate themselves and their families from the dire straits in which they found themselves.
The provisions of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years existed, in part, to help them. These laws also had a profound moral influence on their next of kin, brothers and sisters, uncles and nephews, etc., to extend themselves on behalf of their impoverished relatives.
Jews were never free simply to walk away from their own flesh and blood fallen on difficult times. Love, compassion, mercy, law combine to help motivate us if it is within our power to do so. This worked in a number of ways.
First, the Sabbatical Year assured indentured Jews that their years of servitude to other Jews would end within a prescribed period of time. The Jubilee Year also guaranteed that the ancestral land they had been forced to sell would be returned to them. To quote a well-known Scriptural passage referenced by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz in his biblical commentary, “the earth is the Lord’s.” Hertz’s commentary continues, “All the land was, as it were, held from God on lease. The Israelite who voluntarily or through some compulsion sold his land to another, sold not the ownership of the land, but the remainder of the lease – till the next year of Jubilee, when all the leases fell in simultaneously. The land then came back to his family . . . “
Second, Leviticus 25 also reveals that a relative could, if so inclined, immediately restore an indentured kinsman’s freedom and land without waiting for either the Sabbatical or Jubilee Years to occur. After a fashion these generous act of tsedakah are illustrated in this week’s Haftorah from Jeremiah, Chapter 32. Here the prophet responds to the appeal of his uncle, Hanamel, the son of Shallum, purchasing his field in Anathoth at a time when its true market value was next to nothing. The reason: the Babylonian armies have assembled at the gates of Jerusalem and the entire kingdom of Judah immediately before the destruction of the First Temple in 587-86 BCE. The end of the four hundred year old Davidic monarchy is at hand. Nevertheless, Jeremiah acts as he does not only to assist his uncle but to set an example of hope and survival for the Jewish People. In doing so Jeremiah brings to life Torah laws found in Leviticus 25.
These biblical examples of tsedakah are not limited to Jews helping Jews. Our people have always extended themselves to others. Throughout Jewish history, whenever permitted, we have generously practiced g’melut chasadim tovim or acts of loving kindness. Natalie Portman recently helped her fellow Israelis by assisting Syrian refugees in camps along Israel’s borders; Israeli doctors and medical teams have treated Syrian refugees requiring medical attention in Israeli hospitals during the current conflict; the Israeli entrepreneurs who created the SodaStream company, resolved to build one of their factories in the West Bank in order to provide jobs and good will for 900 Palestinians. This successful enterprise worked well until outside interference from the ill-conceived movement known as Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS), politicized Soda Stream’s mitzvah. Unfortunately, BDS has jeopardized 900 Palestinians’ jobs, dignity and the good will created between two peoples.
These modern examples are contemporary extensions of the ethics of biblical law. They demonstrate how the Torah’s spirit pervades modern Jewish life providing inspiration for all of us. They also ask, “How far are we willing to go to help brothers, sisters, relatives, family members and even strangers or people with whom we might contend, who are in need?”
I can remember being told by my parents as a young boy of how they guaranteed the welfare of family members and other non-related Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930s enabling them to come to America. Later, when I fully comprehended what they had done and met them, I rejoiced. At that time I was not fully aware of the biblical laws from Leviticus or the mitzvah of pidyon hash’vuyim or redeeming the captives of our people.
The pages of Judaism’s ethical tradition remind us there is always something we can do to help others whether we are related to them or not. Every B’nai Mitzvah student at Congregation Ner Tamid of West Cobb is required (as B’nai Mitzvah students are in many synagogues) to complete a Mitzvah Project before their ceremony. These Mitzvah Projects help inculcate a spirit of compassion and service at an early age, of being obligated to assist others, whether Jewish or not. It underscores an important lesson that goes to the heart of who we are and what it means to be a Jew.